The Black Cat Bar -- a piece of gay history

Discussion in 'Et Cetera, Et Cetera' started by D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse, Jun 25, 2009.

  1. D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse

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    I saw the 1970 movie "The Boys in the Band" for the first time last night on DVD. And it got me thinking about the arc of the gay struggle, gay history in the 20th century.

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    The Black Cat Bar was a famous/infamous bar in San Francisco that saw a flux of gay patrons after WWII -- the end of the '40's and all through the 1950's (the bar closed in 1964).

    This bar had broken the barriers that prevented overtly gay bars from existing freely. A 1951 California Supreme Court decision banned the closing down of a bar simply because homosexuals were the usual customers. In other words, police could bust patrons suspected of congregating in public spaces before 1951 in California merely because they might be gay.

    The bar actually attracted a bohemian crowd. Poets (Beat poets), painters, writers -- many were heterosexual -- but, increasingly through the 1950's it became more and more gay. Although gay men were now permitted to "congregate" they could not dance together. Two men touching, in a perceived sexual way, could still get you arrested. I suspect gay men have always had a "fun", outrageous sense of humor, even near the end of the 1800's, Oscar Wilde's day, but in these gay meeting places of the '50's, "camp" humor began to flower. Camp humor is a knowing, specialized kind of humor. Camp humor, a camp sensibility, thrives on excess and artifice and exaggeration. Stereotypical camp (and camp that was immitated in gay bars) is what Bette Davis did in the 1950 film "All About Eve". I'm not sure why an oppressed people such as gay men in the 1940's and 1950's would be drawn to camp humor. There must be a psychological component mirroring their state of mind. But gay men thrived on outrageous, stylized, saturated humor. An unnatural humor. A private code, a badge of identity.

    Back in these days, homosexuality was widely considered to be a mental disorder. People were hospitalized and institutionalized. Many gays themselves considered their homosexuality to be a mental disorder, an aberration. Gay sex itself was criminal. There was not a lot of Gay Pride in the 1950's, just a lot of gay shame and guilt, because gay men largely bought into what society thought of them.


    José Sarria and his sister, Teresa, started coming to the Black Cat in the early '50's. Both became smitten with a young waiter named Jimmy Moore - and they made a private bet as to which of them could get this guy into bed first. José won. He and Moore soon became lovers. Sarria began covering for Moore when he was unable to work and soon Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen hired José as a cocktail waiter. José also picked up some small singing jobs while cocktail waiting at the Black Cat.


    José Sarria keeps coming up in the early histories of the gay movement. He had an outrageous, campy sense of humor. He loved to dress in drag (which was also illegal... an obscure law on the books was used by police to arrest men dressed as women "with the intent to deceive"). One night at the Black Cat, Sarria recognized the piano player's rendition of Bizet's opera Carmen and began singing arias from the opera while he delivered drinks. His exaggerated singing and general campy behavior became a big hit; this quickly led to a schedule of three to four shows a night, in drag, along with a regular Sunday afternoon show. Sarria was billed as "The Nightingale of Montgomery Street". Initially he focused on singing parodies of popular torch songs. Soon, however, Sarria was performing full-blown parodic operas in his natural high tenor. His specialty was a re-working of Carmen set in modern-day San Francisco. Sarria as Carmen would prowl through the popular cruising area Union Square. The audience cheered "Carmen" on as she dodged the vice squad and made her escape.


    Let wikipedia take it from here:

    Sarria encouraged patrons to be as open and honest as possible. "People were living double lives and I didn't understand it. It was persecution. Why be ashamed of who you are?" He exhorted the clientele, "There's nothing wrong with being gay –- the crime is getting caught", and "United we stand, divided they catch us one by one". At closing time he would call upon patrons to join hands and sing "God Save Us Nelly Queens" to the tune of "God Save the Queen". Sometimes he would bring the crowd outside to sing the final verse to the men across the street in jail, who had been arrested in raids earlier in the night. Speaking of this ritual in the film Word is Out, gay journalist George Mendenhall said:
    It sounds silly, but if you lived at that time and had the oppression coming down from the police department and from society, there was nowhere to turn ... and to be able to put your arms around other gay men and to be able to stand up and sing 'God Save Us Nelly Queens' ... we were really not saying 'God Save Us Nelly Queens.' We were saying 'We have our rights, too'.

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    For the longest time, I've sort of been ashamed of being a gay man lumped together with "drag queens", but in many early (20th century) histories of Gay Liberation, drag queens keep appearing, leading the way. I think it must have something to do with drag queens having nothing to lose. Men who felt "at home" in drag must have had a harder time in the '40's and '50's assimilating in the general ("straight") culture. They seemed to fight longer and harder against police raids -- compared to the gay business man who could "pass" in the general population. The same thing was true at the Stonewall Inn. Drag queens fighting to be free of police harrassment and incarceration.


    In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association, finally, removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
     
  2. B_Nick8

    B_Nick8 New Member

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    History too often feels inaccessible to young guys; thank god I've always been interested.

    And in this and similar threads, I almost want to shove it down people's throats. It's soooo easy to take for granted the freedom we have now and to withhold the proper respect and gratitude for those who made it possible.

    One of the columnists in this quarter's Gay and Lesbian Review noted that what young gay people lack today is a sense of outrage. Our dominoes, Will, would be falling faster if they didn't.
     
  3. HellsKitchenmanNYC

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    You go!
     
  4. D_Ireonsyd_Colonrinse

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    A note to anybody:

    Since this is sort of a gay history thread, I have a question. I was pm-ing with another lpsg member yesterday about pre-Stonewall gay movies (or movies which feature a gay character or theme).

    I saw both Lillian Hellman's 1961 "The Children's Hour" on TCM on cable in the past couple weeks (where Shirley MacLaine commits suicide at the end by hanging herself in the closet) as well as Tennessee Williams' 1959 "Suddenly Last Summer" (a movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in which Kate Hepburn's homosexual-poet son gets cannibalized by teenaged children on an island called Cabeza de Lobo).


    I saw "Boys in the Band". I have a british film called "Victim" queued up on Netflix. I want to see a 1956 movie called "Tea and Sympathy" which doesn't appear to be out on DVD yet.

    What other pre-Stonewall (pre-1969) gay movies can anyone suggest?

    Jason Els was suggesting some pre-Hays Code films. I found a 1933 German movie that is supposed to be an exceptional film called "Mädchen in Uniform" that portrays a lesbian relationship in a positive light which was only released in the U.S. due to efforts by Eleanor Roosevelt.

    After the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934, homosexuality was not permitted to be mentioned directly. In the 1950's, when the production code loosened up a bit, gay characters were allowed to appear if they were punished for their sins (usually they commited suicide). Even Paul Newman's character Brick Pollitt was not allowed to be a closeted homosexual in the 1958 "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Tennessee Williams' play was cut up and censored to the point that the audiences no longer understood why he was drinking himself into oblivion.
     
  5. BiggerInTexas8

    BiggerInTexas8 New Member

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    Who cares? Why should us queer, gay, and bisexual men care about some lame bar or about people who can't get over camp humor and live in the past too much? I saw the movie Boys in the Band when I was in college and it was new and my boyfriend at the time he and I just laughed at watching the silly NYC queens on screen and how horribly stereotypical the entire movie was. Being camp is out and has been for decades and this is a good thing. Not all queer men are camp and the majority are not screaming queens. WillTom you're not a gay man, you're bisexual. Also there is nothing wrong with being a bisexual male like you and Nick8 are or being a gay male and NOT wanting to be associated with drag queens or camp humor as gay liberation would have happened even if Stonewall and other sacred cows did not. People who obsess over gay "history" of the past are living in the past too much and are not remembering that it was not only gay men who were part of the GLBT/queer revolution but Transsexual/Transgendered people, bisexuals, lesbians, and even women were a part of it, not just gay white men who sometimes imitated women and dressed in drag. Contrary to popular opinion back then and even today being an out gay man living in a rural area is not that bad or as bad as people who live in urban areas want to think that it is. I have visited LA, SF, and NYC and queens there act like if you are an out gay or bisexual man and living in a rural area that you are a Matthew Sheperd waiting to happen and this is not true. :rolleyes:
     
  6. ruggero

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    Pasolini's "Teorema" with a young beautiful Terence Stamp in it and "Something for everyone" with a young Michael Yorke, are both well worth watching, and "the Fearless Vampire Killers" starring and directed by Roman Polanski (and including Sharon Tate, his wife, in her last film before she got "Mansoned!"(Charles that is..)
    and "Death in Venice" of course and Fellinis "Satyricon" gives you a glimpse of mentoring in ancient Rome (stories don't come much gayer than this!).
    These are Gay movies but aren't about the battle but I find them very enjoyable.
     
  7. ruggero

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    Jean Genets "Querelle" with Brad Davis........................................................
     
  8. justmeincal

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    Thanks Willtom for the interesting post.
     
  9. SadPony

    SadPony New Member

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    Nobody cares about a stupid old bar full of queens and outdated camp humor that never was funny and is just a bad pointless stereotype just like that shitty movie The Boys In The Band. You and I both know that it is true. Stupid post and Gay History is pointless as we are all human first and foremost.
     
  10. Northland

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    Thank you for posting this.
     
  11. B_BullBalls78

    B_BullBalls78 New Member

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    What gay and lesbian community? Nevermind that lots of Gay and Lesbian people do not care about Bisexual and Trans people and pretend that Bi and Trans people are rare or do not exist. Yes lots of our queer brothers and sisters hate Bisexual and Trans people not surprising. There is no such thing as a GLBT community or culture at all. What people think of as being a real GLBT community and GLBT culture is really just people being reckless, vulgar, mindless, irresponsible, being massive consumers, massive conformity, bad politics, and living in a ghetto. Look at GLBT Pride parades they are nothing but Consumer driven events and are pointless nowadays and fueled by booze and just show Heterosexual people and society the bad parts about being GLBT. We need to grow as human beings and not define ourselves and validate ourselves with the trappings of a trash culture that has only existed for a generation or so. Voluntary self-confinement to a cultural ghetto is even worse than being forced into a concentration camp by the homophobes because it is freely chosen and self-limiting. Have the backbone to think for yourself and to talk back to the GLBT/gay culture cops when you don't fit in; (god help anyone who does want to fit in). Forget about being gay/bisexual/lesbian/Trans enough. Love who you choose - and don't worry if you are living the GLBT lifestyle or not. Quite frankly, it isn't worth worrying about, defending, or investing in. If anything, it can kill you. Openly criticize those who claim to speak for us (usually because all opposition has been shouted down). In summary: live your life - not some life designed for you by the gay/GLBT culture or gay/GLBT community. It is all nothing but a strait jacket.
     
    #11 B_BullBalls78, Jul 17, 2009
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2009
  12. B_BullBalls78

    B_BullBalls78 New Member

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    BTW this was a pointless thing to post and nobody cares about this bar or the flaming queens in it and if you actually had pride in yourself as being a bisexual male (since you WillTom are bisexual and not a gay or homosexual male) you would be posting stuff about bisexuality, bisexual history, and bisexual people, and not just gay men who are queens and are tired old stereotypes of the past that people like to drag out as sacred cows during stonewall but that's all those old dinosaurs are good for is acting like they actually did something for GLBT rights when they did not do anything of importance and even if Stonewall did not happen GLBT rights would have been won anyway. :rolleyes: So, in forty years there have been two advances: We can drink in a bar, and the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws. Now, balance that against DADT (don't ask don't tell), DOMA, dozens of anti-GLBT constitutional amendments, etc. There was a brief period of progress between 1969 and around 1975, but if anything we've gone backwards since then, the only notable exception being the 2003 sodomy decision.
     
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